Robert Thorn is an American ambassador in Italy. His wife is about to have a baby. At the hospital, a priest informs Thorn that the baby has died. The priest suggests that Thorn adopt another infant and not tell his wife about the switch, sparing her the grief of losing her own child. The new child is Damien, and as we all know, Damien is the Antichrist, the son of Satan, sent to usher in the devil’s rule on earth.
Skip ahead five years. Thorn is now ambassador to the UK, and Weird Stuff starts happening. At Damien’s fifth birthday party, his nanny hangs herself in full view of all the partygoers, a scene which traumatized me as a child. (Don’t ask me why or how I managed to see it.) Things escalate, with Thorn’s wife Katherine eventually concluding that Damien is evil. Her fears seem to be confirmed when he knocks her off a third-floor landing in their palatial home, leaving her hospitalized. As Weird Stuff escalates, people are gradually convinved of Damien’s satanic nature–though of course Thorn, the main character, is the last to accept it–and as the folks who know the truth start to die, Thorn is left with an unspeakable task: kill his own son, in a grisly way, in a church, for the good of humanity.
While not as pitch-perfect as The Exorcist, The Omen nevertheless manages to be just swell. It’s got Gregory Peck as the lead, for one thing; and although it suffers from what I’d (probably incorrectly) classify as an earlier style of acting–what I like to call Acting by Proclamation–it’s still a great, atmospheric, and intelligent thriller. There are some pacing issues, it’s true, but it perfectly captures the atmosphere of dread that is, for me, the sine qua non of horror. The scene where the reporter, Jennings, is decapitated by the flying sheet of window glass is just so weird, so unlikely and bleak, that it still creeps me out.
Another point I like about The Omen is that it provides a way for people to fight back. Thorn gets the daggers of Megiddo and has a chance to kill Damien and spare the world his reign of evil. As we all know, he fails; but he has the chance, and that’s more than a lot of horror offers its heroes. The biggest enemy, of course, is doubt. If Thorn had accepted the truth of Damien’s demonic nature just a bit earlier, he might have saved his wife and Jennings and countless others. But he hesitated, and, as they say, he who hesitates is lost.
It’s not the greatest horror film of all time, but it’s surely one of the greats. If you somehow haven’t seen The Omen, you really should. It’s one of the few creepy-kid films that really work, and its influence on the horror genre is still apparent today.